In the autumn of 1985 I did three important things: first, I fell into ridiculous love with a Swiss Anthropologist. The Swiss Anthropologist didn’t love me, but he did call me his “little punk girl,” which flattered me at the time; second – I gave up smoking; third – I saw Potemkin about thirty five times while preparing a course on Film and Literature in the 20th Century. I was a new Assistant Professor at Brandeis, and had recently  joined

Socialist Professors’ group. I felt perfectly

content as a post- San Franciscan,  and as a waveringly post-Trot girl by the presence in the Socialist Prof group of the elegant, clever and kind Ralph Miliband— longtime editor of Socialist Register — and who I later hallucinated as a ghost crossing the pedestrian bridge at Chalk Farm a few years after his death in 1994. This was long before his two disgraceful sons blighted the political landscape in Britain.Unknown-10  The wonderful Ralph Miliband.

Now to the real thing, Potemkin: I certainly wish that I had read Dwight Macdonald’s  two-parter, begun in the July, 1938 volume of Partisan Review, right after Rahv’s piece on Dostoyevsky —  moving from the presentness of a classic to the invention of the aesthetics of film.  At the time I was having my binge-watch of Potemkin, American film studies had learned from the likes of Britain’s Screen  and French structuralism, to think of film in semiotic terms, and the textbook written by Bordwell and Thompson gave thousands of college students a vocabulary of terms and concepts to see film art as an aesthetic available to techno-theoretical descriptions.

But back here in the summer of 1938, Dwight Macdonald was still alive with the enormous inventions of Soviet Cinema at the beginning of the decade and the Stalinist campaign against Modernist cinema. What Macdonald gives us in the first part of the essay is the historico-political grounding for what I was teaching 40 years later.

Macdonald, experienced in addressing a readership with clarity and wit in Fortune and The New Yorker, opens with the scene of youthful exhilaration of the Revolution and the desire by Soviet film makers to invent and define an ‘art’ of film composition, and to give film the status of  ‘science.’ Eisenstein’s Potemkin is film as an art object, and aims to present time as space through montage: cross cutting sections of film to generate juxtapositions of concepts, sounds, images, that turn temporal sequences  into visual collages.

Macdonald writes”When …Potemkin was released in 1925, it made an international sensation. Even Hollywood was impressed by its power and originality; Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. de Mille, and other American movie celebrities made pilgrimages to the Soviet Union. In more intellectual circles, it was recognised at once that the cinema had at last spoken in its own language, The building up of a rhythmic structure in the cutting room (“montage”), the use of real settings and non-professional  actors, the use of pictorial symbols corresponding to Wagner’s  ‘themes’, the abandonment of the old literary-theatrical unilinear narrative in favour of a many -threaded episodic development (‘the compound plot’), the emphasis on the mass rather  than the individual protagonist – these radical innovations freed the cinema from its bondage to the threatre and gave it for the first time its own aesthetic… In the next few years the Soviet produced one film after another to which the adjective “great” could be scrupulously applied.”

Early history:

The Soviet Union had not had much of a film industry prior to the Revolution, but had relied on films from France and other European countries.  But in 1919, the government nationalised cinema, and attached it to the Commissariat of Education.  Trotsky saw that it was a valuable opportunity for the promotion of the Arts in the Soviet Union. Apparently Trotsky had campaigned to turn the Soviet chain of Vodka shops into cinemas. He hoped it was help draw people from religion to buiding the new nation. By 1924, Soviet film-making was about to blossom.  Macdonald makes the point that since Meyerhold and Stanislavsky had been changing theatrical method before the Revolution, many films were recorded versions of stage productions under the direction of Anatole Lunacharsky.

By 1924 the underlying conditions for an esthetic upsurge had been created. (Political: Sovinko, State film council; social:formation of workers’ film groups; economic: the liquidation of ‘War Communism,’ (which allowed decent film stock and other supplies to be available .) Macdonald outlines the inventiveness of the work of 1924:

    1. The Factory of the Eccentric Actor, “They base their technique on the grotesque but exact eccentrics of the circus, on the balance of acrobats.”
    2. The Documentary Focus, in the work of Dziga Vertov, “fanatic of the ‘documentary film, whose programme was “Only documentary facts! No illusions! Down with the Actor and  Scenery! Long live the film of actuality!”  images-12Unknown-13Unknown-12

3.Montage, Years before anyone else, Vertov proclaimed the theory and acted on it, that the arranging of individual shots in the cutting room is the basic creative process in cinema  . . .Less fanatical, and with broader talent, L. Kuleshov to first show the unlimited possibilities of film.   

But for Macdonald, the greatest expression of this experimental film was through the work of Segei Eistenstein: “From the Eccentric Actor group, he took stylization and symbols, from Vertov a preference for non-professional actors and an aversion to studio sets, from Kuleshov the principle of montage.            

From 1925-1929,the heyday of Soviet film, the  NEP was still in power, and by 1929, Stalin had cleared the hierarchy of most of the Left Opposition, and the Five-Year Plan was in action. While industry and agriculture were developed through forced collectivization,  “the movies were speedily harnessed to the wheels of the plan. In 1930, a plan was announced for theatre, cinema, sculpture and painting. By the end of 1933, the annual production of feature films was to be increased to 350, which is more than all the studios of Hollywood combined produce in an average year. “

The focus of the plan on production meant, not surprisingly, that issues of aesthetics were downplayed. The quotas for Directors meant that “By now, Dovzhenko is eleven films behind his ‘norm,;’ Pudovkin thirteen, and Eisenstein fifteen.”

Macdonald then turns to the issues that faced Soviet film directors from 1928-1938: “One is technical — the use of sound. The other is how to treat a new theme: the everyday life of the Soviet Union. These are difficult problems and, to the observer of 1930-1932,” it wasn’t clear how to move forward.

Eisenstein believed that montage was the necessary form for filming, but with the appearance in 1927 of The Jazz Singer, the Modernist soviet directors were caught by surprise, Eisenstein and Pudovkin writing a manifesto in 1929, wrote “Only the use of sound as counterpoint  against visual cutting opens up new possibilities and will further perfect the art of editing. The first experiments in sound must be directed towards its pronounced non-coincidence with the visual image.” Well, he was swimming the wrong way, it appears.

The only really successful Soviet film in 1931 was Nicolai Ekk’s Road to Life, a life about bringing a gang of ‘wild boys’  into modern soviet life.

Unknown-14images-13 Nikolai Ekkimages-14   Road to Life.

But Macdonald’s central point about this period is that what set Soviet Cinema back was the “forcible proletarianisation” of arts and letters which was carried on by a set of ultra-leftist sectarians, theologians, and bureaucrats. The most notorious case was the dictatorship exercised over literature, with Stalin’s blessing, by the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers , whose slogan was, “Art is a Class Weapon.”

Dziga Vertov had control over much of the industry in 1930, and was against producing anything other than documentary films.  And a campaign against  petit bourgeois and bourgeois elements in the films of Eisenstein and more overtly, Dovzhenko’s Earth, began. “Istvestia had a three-column  article denouncing the film as ‘counter-revolutionary,’ ‘defeatist’ and ‘too realistic.’ images-15 Unknown-159b02eb6247be8340671f82655726902ca7750d92

Dovzhenko directing Earth. (1930)

  1. to read full text, click:DwightMacdonald on Soviet Cinema
  2. The second half of Macdonald’s article will be discussed later on this blog.

next: William Troy on Thomas Mann